Dawn Edgerton-Cameron: ‘Exposure, Opportunity, Perception and Reception’

“How do we take on the four-headed monster that exposure, opportunity, perception and reception represent and slay its inhibition on diversity and inclusion in our sports?” Dawn Edgerton-Cameron outlines a comprehensive path forward.

In summer 2020 we launched our 1st Annual $5,000+ Diversity Scholarship with the support of generous donors, inviting minority equestrians to contribute to the discussion of diversity and inclusion in equestrian sport. It is the mission of this annual bursary, which we intend to expand in coming years, to call for, encourage, elevate and give a platform to minority voices in a space where they are underrepresented.

How do we build a more diverse, inclusive and accessible sport? In the coming weeks we will explore this question alongside many of the 27 Scholarship recipients as they share with us their essays in full. Collectively, their perspectives coalesce into a body of work that will no doubt help inform a viable path forward for equestrian sport, and we are committed to connecting their actionable ideas with the public as well as leaders and stakeholders of the sport.

Today we welcome Dawn Edgerton-Cameron. More voices: Caden Barrera | Madison Buening | Anastasia Curwood | Deonte Sewell 

Dawn and “Tale” (Jockey Club name: Alluseeismytale). Photo by Dyanna Capuano.

Why is there such a lack of diversity in horse sports, and how do we foster more inclusion? Like most complicated issues, there are many reasons, which means there’s no one path to resolution and correcting it requires a multifaceted approach. As a result, I’m going to cover a lot of ground here, so buckle up.

First, it’s critical to address the elephant (Percheron?) in the room. Equestrians of color do exist, and have for hundreds of years in this country. A look back through history provides several examples; in fact, the Kentucky Horse Park has an entire exhibit devoted to the contributions of African Americans to horse sports. Other examples include the renowned Buffalo Soldiers of the US Calvary, and Rodeo Hall of Famer Bill Pickett. Before these lands became the United States, there were skilled Native American horsemen, and there are even more examples globally going back thousands of years.

Living in DC metro today with its concentration of relatively affluent Black communities, not only have I been able to develop friendships with a handful of former barn mates who look like me, but have also been delighted to see a handful more of little girls in pigtails riding ponies at local horse shows. Looking farther afield, I know there are others across the country because I see them in various Facebook groups, on the newly formed Polo Team at Morehouse College, in the Black Professional Cowboys and Cowgirls Association, and in the unforgettable images of the Nonstop Riders at the Black Lives Matter protest in Houston earlier this spring. If you know to look, you can also see Black celebrities like Soledad O’Brien and NFL alum Brian Westbrook enjoying their horses or read Black Reins magazine to see even more equestrians of color.

So why is there only a smattering of people of color involved in equestrian sports versus other activities? In my opinion, the key factors are: exposure, opportunity, perception, and reception. Each in itself is a multi-layered issue but also overlaps with the others, making it an even thornier issue to untangle.

Let’s examine exposure first. People can’t get involved in something they don’t know exists. Many people of color live in urban areas or close in suburbs and there aren’t any horses around to see, let alone ride. Though I somehow discovered horses as a seven- or eight-year old in Queens, I didn’t have any place to actually ride until my family moved from the city to suburban Long Island. My parents bought me a lesson package at the barn in our county park for my 11th birthday. I also found out that my new (and still!) best friend happened to be going to a Girl Scout run horseback riding camp for a week that summer. Even though I wasn’t a scout, I was able to sign up too. Between the two, I was hooked and quickly fell into a weekend routine of mucking stalls and grooming horses in exchange for saddle time. I’m certain that if my parents hadn’t moved, I wouldn’t be the horse person I am today. Accessible camps and lesson barns are often the “gateway drug” to a lifetime horse addiction, but all too often they fall victim to housing development. I’m sad to say that the camp I attended and many of the horse farms that existed when we moved are now subdivisions, and even sadder that I see the same trend here in the Annapolis area. It means less access to the sport for a lot of potentially horse crazy kids.

Furthermore, even if you know it exists, it’s just not realistic to be seriously involved with a sport you can only access on a farm 2-3 (or more) hours from home if your family needs to live in or near a city for work. Easy access, ideally by public transportation is required in if we want to draw people who may not drive in from a city. There are still some lesson and boarding barns like Knoll Farm in Brentwood, NY, that are accessible via public transportation but they are rare. There are also some urban-based barn youth development programs, like Work To Ride in Philadelphia, but those seem to be even fewer and farther between. I can only imagine how hard it is to maintain these ventures as urban sprawl continues to encroach upon them.

College equestrian teams that ride in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) need riders at all levels from Walk-Trot classes up, so there is some opportunity to get involved as an older student, but let’s face it, it’s tough to ask someone to start riding and also safely and confidently show in the same academic semester. Also, if the team doesn’t have varsity status, the riders have to cover the costs to participate out of pocket, which I know from personal experience can be a challenge if not a flat-out barrier to entry.

Opportunity is a fast following second consideration to exposure. This is not only because it’s closely tied to the aforementioned challenges with proximity, but also because, let’s face it, horses are expensive and that keeps a lot of people out of the sport. Now let’s get some other things out of the way before we dive deeper into this topic: YES, that’s true for people across backgrounds. NO, not all horse people are wealthy. NO, not all people of Caucasian descent were born with silver spoons in their mouths. YES, people of all backgrounds who want something need to work for it and YES, there are some well to do people of color in this country.

That being said, the fact is that the average net worth of Caucasian families in the U.S. is 10-11x that of African-American families, *even when corrected for education levels*. As a financial advisor, I’m very aware that the wealth gap people of color experience in this society is real. Unfortunately for our sport, that means that many Black families need to give precedence to other priorities people from other communities can take for granted versus getting involved in our notoriously expensive pastime. I know for a fact that if Camp Westdale hadn’t been affordable, I wouldn’t have been able to go for the three years I attended. I know this because when I asked my parents if I could to go to another (fancier and far more expensive) English-based camp in New England thereafter (I’d switched over to further my equestrian education since Western lessons were not an option on Long Island in the ‘80’s) the answer was a hard “No.” I know it was hard for them to tell me that, and it was definitely hard to hear (I think I cried all weekend), but it was just too expensive even for my father the attorney/ college professor / Army Reserve colonel to afford. I can’t say for sure what the demographic was at that New England camp, but there weren’t a lot of (any??) girls that looked like me in the brochure’s pictures. However, as I recall, at least one-quarter of the campers at Westdale every year were Black. I’m sure the price point had something to do with the fact that so many young girls of color were able to enjoy riding there.

But, as noted earlier, there are more affluent people of color that can afford to get involved in horses, but don’t. Why not? Maybe because they think it’s not for people like them. That leads into perception and reception.

There’s a saying “If you can see them, you can be them.” In other words, it’s easier for people to consider participating in something if they see other people that look like them doing so. However, there are and have been equestrians of color at the upper levels of horse sports, including William “Randy” Ward and Kanyon Walker (eventing), Melvin Dutton (H/J), Mavis Spencer, Paige Johnson, Donna Marie Cheek (show jumping), and Matt Mills (reining). If we want to attract more people from diverse backgrounds, they have to perceive our sports as inclusive. We have to demonstrate that there are people of color in them by knowing their names and sharing their stories and successes.

Finally, once we get different people into the sport, don’t act shocked once we’re here. In other words, be mindful of the reception people of color receive at horse shows and other events. And no, no one has ever actually *said* anything to me when I’m at an event, but based on some of the looks I’ve been given when I’ve walked up to tents as a spectator at upper level events and into offices of equine organizations, they didn’t have to. I knew from their expressions they did not expect to see someone that looked like me among them and they wondered what the h*** I was doing there. At that point, I’d been riding for over 30 years, and no one was (or is) going to keep me away from my sport. But had I been a newer rider when these things happened, I don’t think I’d have come back. The message was clear, even if unintentional: “This isn’t for you.”

Since then, I’m sure to rock my old battered Brown University Equestrian Team cap when on the ground at shows and clinics, because it sends out silent messages of my own, “No, I’m not lost”, “Yes, I ride”, and “I’m an established part of the horse community too, despite what your experiences are.” That’s not to say that the pressure of likely being the only person that looks like me at an event doesn’t impact me. If I’m honest, I’m sure it’s responsible for at least part of the show anxiety I’ve developed as I’ve gotten older. But since I’ve got to control my nerves for the sake of the sensitive OTTBs I ride, I try to be present and put that out of my head when I mount up so we’re at our best in the ring. But it’s never far from my mind.

Dawn and Jack of Spades (“Jack”). Photo by Rough Coat Photography.

So, how do we take on the four-headed monster that exposure, opportunity, perception and reception represent and slay its inhibition on diversity and inclusion in our sports? From my vantagepoint, it boils down to marketing and support / allyship. Because I have an MBA in marketing and corporate strategy and spent 10 years of my career in product management and consumer engagement roles, I’ll warn you now that I’m about to geek out hard about how the marketing could come to life.

Awareness is powerful, and it’s often driven by marketing. New horse enthusiasts can’t get involved in riding if it isn’t on their radar. Thus, if we want to attract people from different backgrounds to equestrian sports, we need to have our sports start popping up their proverbial heads-up displays.

In other words, if we’re really serious about this it needs to be a long-term strategic focus, complete with a marketing campaign crafted to drive awareness of equestrian sports with people of color. The various national equestrian governing bodies should consider partnering with a strategic marketing consultant and agency to develop and execute an advertising campaign that is not just consistent across and beneficial to multiple disciplines, but cost effective as well. It could have a look and feel similar to the “Go RV-ing” campaign and be digital so it can laser focus on the desired target audience based not just on demographics but also on psychographic profiles (i.e., those individuals whose behaviors and attitudes indicate they’re most likely to consider taking lessons, sending their child to camp, or vacationing to a dude ranch, for example) and deployed via geotargeting (to identify people in zip codes closest to barns and with incomes most likely to be able to afford the cost). The ads could include a click through link to a database of lesson barns, camps, dude ranches or working student opportunities near the user or that the user could realistically get to.

Furthermore, local lesson barn and camp managers, especially those in or close to urban areas or that are accessible via public transportation, could piggyback on the effort with their own social media or search engine optimization plans to make themselves more visible to these same consumers. I know full well that barn managers are busy, that marketing a business takes time and that not everyone has the expertise to do so. If you can’t do it yourself, consider engaging equestrian-specific marketing firm to help. At the very least, consider reaching out to local schools that have a high percentage of students of color and offer your farm for field trip opportunities.

Why go through all this trouble? Because done properly, the investment is worth it. Promoting diversity and inclusion in our sport isn’t altruism – it’s good business. Consider what bringing more new riders into the sport as part of a lesson program for example, would mean in terms of new, previously untapped revenue streams for a barn, probably local tack shops, and potentially the rest of the industry depending on how involved these new riders get.

But we can’t just leave all the work to the governing bodies and barn owners if we’re going to solve this problem. Other industry professionals and we as individual riders to need to share the responsibility too.

How many of the Black upper level riders or organizations mentioned earlier are you familiar with? Probably not many, and we’re the horse people! How can we expect non-riding parents or newer riders to feel like this is a sport they or their kids can be part of if they don’t know they exist either? There are enough horse-oriented print publications and websites to be able to give plenty of editorial and PR bandwidth to increase awareness of these riders and their successes. Even focusing on them during February’s Black History Month would be a start.

Merely publicizing a handful of elite riders isn’t enough, however. Companies listen when consumers vote with their wallets, and representation matters. The next time you pick up your favorite horse supply catalog or log onto your favorite equine shopping site, take a look at the models. How much diversity is there? Not much. If 70% of communication is nonverbal, this sends that “This isn’t for you” message loudly and clearly. Take a minute to call, email or post on the company’s social media page and ask them what their plan is to be more inclusive in their marketing communications. If you don’t like their answers (or if they don’t have one) take your purchasing power to the 1-2 companies that are starting to get it and including more people of color in their pages.

Beyond formal marketing, the horse community needs to be allies to riders of color both directly and indirectly. Sponsors, upper level riders of color need financial and in-kind support like any other upper level rider. Are you seeking them out? Show and clinic organizers, who you are reaching out to for your next clinician or judging opportunities? It’s important for the qualified equestrians of color we do have to be seen and heard. Trainers, who are you are calling to source your student’s next horse? I’ve watched ads for horses in sales barns owned by Black equestrians be repeated for months only to have the horse move to someone else’s place and sell. If you’re always calling the same people, network to expand your contact list; you may find a great new resource! Taking any of these steps makes it more likely that a person of color can stay in the sport or the business and pave the way for other riders of color to follow.

Away from the barn, there are indirect ways we can all support the creation of a more inclusive environment. Support local lesson barns and camps by not being so quick to acquiesce to increased development in your area. Strengthen that resolve by voting for local politicians that support green space preservation and community recreation programs. Yes, your property taxes may be lower if we increase the population density by building more homes, but what does that mean for local horse businesses that can be the introduction to horses for a kid that wouldn’t otherwise be exposed? Whether they’re local to you or not, consider donating money, gently used tack or other needed supplies to urban riding programs that get kids from underrepresented backgrounds into horses.

College alums, does your alma mater have an equestrian team? If it’s an equitation team, do they participate in the IHSA that requires riders of all levels for a team to succeed? This format is more likely to allow participation of newer riders than the NCEA (backed by the NCAA system) that focuses on the elite athlete more likely to have grown up riding. If not, make your feelings known to the school, athletic department, and the team leadership or trainer. Is it a club sport that requires student athletes to pay their own way to participate? If so, ask if you’re allowed to donate to help cover the expenses of students that otherwise wouldn’t be able to ride. Finally, can you generate a groundswell of support to get the university to grant (or retain) varsity status so that all costs for student athletes are covered (looking at you, Brown U.)? Allies, don’t forget about the secondary school teams that participate in the Interscholastic Horse Show Association in many areas. Ask how you can help them attract and support more underrepresented riders, too.

Obviously, this a complicated challenge that isn’t going to be resolved quickly, or by one group of people. It’s going to take prolonged engagement by various stakeholders, especially given that we live in a society built on a foundation of institutional racism. However, we can and should take ownership over the direction we want our sport to head, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it makes good business sense. A sport with broad appeal draws higher attendance at events, is less likely to get “cancelled” from the Olympics, gets more television air time, earns higher advertising revenue for that air time, and strengthens the consumer base for multiple local businesses. If each of us commits to taking just 1 or 2 of the above actions, we can get there a lot faster. Remember to provide a warm reception when we do.

*It should go without saying but just in case: these are my observations and recommendations based largely (but not exclusively) on my own experiences. I’m not in a position to nor would I ever claim to speak for every equestrian of color. For what it’s worth, though, I would be happy to work on any committees created to help address these issues moving forward.

Dawn Edgerton-Cameron lives in Annapolis, MD with her husband Perry and their Australian Shepherd “Dutch”.  They moved from NY metro in 2011 to be closer to Navy Football (him) and take part in Area 2 eventing (her). She’s a member of the Maryland Horse Council and USEA and volunteers with Maryland Therapeutic Riding. When she isn’t working as a Financial Advisor at Edward Jones, she’s (still) working her way up to the Beginner Novice level (and dabbling in competitive trail) on her trainer’s OTTB, with a goal of one day qualifying for the Master’s BN division at the AECs.

Get involved: In her essay Dawn calls upon her expertise in corporate strategy to explain the importance of diversity representation consistently through marketing, a concept that we have begun to see stakeholders in the sport embrace. 

At USEF’s 2020 Mid-Year Meeting, the development of a Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan was announced. One immediate component of the plan: 

  • Measurable increase in Equestrian Weekly and US Equestrian magazine diversity and inclusion themed content and visuals
  • Digital media expanded to feature traditionally under-represented groups including Member Mondays, original video content and a monthly blog.
  • Diversify Shop USEF models

It’s great to see USEF stepping up and following through with a commitment diversity and inclusion — for an example, visit its Instagram page here. Learn more at the USEF’s new Diversity and Inclusion resource page.

We are ready to see other equestrian governing bodies, media outlets and brands/companies follow USEF’s lead. Dawn says we can help encourage this by taking a moment to call, email or post on their social media pages and ask them what their plan is to be more inclusive in their marketing communications.

“If you don’t like their answers (or if they don’t have one) take your purchasing power to the 1-2 companies that are starting to get it and including more people of color in their pages,” she says.

Nation Media wishes to thank Barry and Cyndy Oliff, Katherine Coleman and Hannah Hawkins for their financial support of this Scholarship. We also wish to thank our readers for their support, both of this endeavor and in advance for all the important work still to come.